An unconventional partnership flourishes in F&M’s Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building—one testing the boundaries of research and creating a new study in animal behavior.
Associate Professor of Animal Behavior Elizabeth Lonsdorf, who studies primate behavior inside F&M’s vivarium and conducts fieldwork at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania, recently teamed up with Assistant Professor of Psychology Lauren Howard. Together they have created a collaborative research program that combines Lonsdorf’s research on capuchin monkeys with Howard’s methods for analyzing infant behaviors through eye-tracking technology.
Eye tracking is passive and noninvasive infrared technology that tracks the eye movements of participants and produces “heat maps” of their attention—where they fix their gaze, in what order, and for how long when viewing different images. This method allows researchers to analyze reactions and determine patterns of attention in non-linguistic subjects, such as infants and monkeys, who cannot otherwise articulate their beliefs or experiences. Looking to determine how capuchins react to unfamiliar male and female faces on the screen, the F&M team is the first to successfully study eye tracking in capuchins.
“Collaborative research in the liberal arts is so often an investment in risk-taking, and those risks help lead to new ways to make discoveries across fields,” Lonsdorf says. “Now that we’ve found a way to collect data, we can ask so many more questions about capuchin behaviors.”
Lonsdorf and Howard recruited animal behavior major Lindsey Engelbert ’18 to support this project as a Hackman Scholar. Engelbert volunteered in the vivarium during summer 2016, providing care for the capuchins through feeding and cleaning. She then studied abroad in Tanzania, deepening her interests in primate studies. When she returned, she conducted standardized behavioral observations of the monkeys several days a week, becoming close with each of the capuchins and learning their distinct preferences.
“It’s crucial that students spend this time with the capuchins,” Lonsdorf says. “With such consistent interactions and observations of their behavior, Lindsey knew how to work with them better than I did, so she helped us get reliable data.”
In fact, Engelbert’s attention to the capuchins led the team to a pivotal strategy. “Far more than infants, capuchins are active and easily distracted,” Howard says. “It was challenging to collect data when they would not focus on the test in front of them.” All research is noninvasive and voluntary, so the capuchins are never required to participate in any studies. However, Engelbert suggested providing a sweet treat to the monkeys during the trials to increase their participation in the task. By providing a small amount of peanut butter in the front of their testing area during the research sessions, the capture rate of eye movements increased dramatically.
“Lindsey offered so much to this summer’s research because she was willing to take initiative and, more importantly, to take risks. She agreed to support our eye-tracking project without any experience with the technology, and she learned fast,” said Lonsdorf.
For Engelbert, studying animal behavior has been a lifelong project, one that began as a childhood passion and evolved into critical questions to explore during college. “A lot of people study primates because it is a window into our human ancestry, but I love to learn about the animals themselves—what makes them tick, how they survive and adapt, how they influence the planet,” she says.
The Hackman Scholars program allowed Engelbert to grow from a caretaker of animals to a researcher on a team that benefited directly from her insights. “It is rare for undergraduates to learn these specialized skills, from research methods to project management and delegation,” says Lonsdorf. “I’m confident that F&M researchers are among the most prepared to contribute to their fields.”